This piece was going to be a re-watch celebration of Laika Studio's first feature film, Henry Selick's ('Wendell & Wild') 'Coraline' - released in cinemas 15 years ago. However as I sat to watch the film, it struck me that actually, I hadn't seen this before. Or if indeed I had, I could barely remember it significantly enough to reminisce in delight. I could talk about the meaning of the "Beldam", the struggles of the production, the unique visuals or its lasting cultural impact. But now as a first-time viewer, rather this piece will be a collection of thoughts as I break my 'Coraline' blindspot.
The titular Coraline (Dakota Fanning, 'War of the Worlds') moves with her Mum (Teri Hatcher, 'Spy Kids', TV's 'Desperate Housewives') and Dad (John Hodgman, 'Arthur') to the "Pink Palace", where her parents can concentrate on writing their gardening catalogue - whatever that is. She's bored, aimless, and besides the landlady's annoying grandson "Wybee" (Robert Bailey Jr) and her eccentric neighbours Mr Bobinski (Ian McShane, 'John Wick') and retired burlesque performers Miriam (Dawn French, 'Death on the Nile') and April (Jennifer Saunders, 'Shrek 2', TV's 'Absolutely Fabulous'), she's alone. Her life seems dull and void of warmth until one day she stumbles upon a small hidden door, opening up to a parallel universe that seems to make all her dreams come true. Here, her "other" mum and dad are attentive, caring and, best of all, cook meals. Yes, they all have buttons instead of eyes, but must we dwell on people's physical appearances? The more time Coraline spends in her idealised world, the more rotten it becomes. "Other Mum" (likewise voiced by Hatcher) begins to show cracks and secrets are revealed that will turn both of Coraline's worlds upside down. With the help of the stray black cat (Keith-David">Keith-David, 'The Thing'), it's up to Coraline to be brave in order to save her family, as well as the lost souls trapped in the alternate world.
I have spoken before about the importance of creating art that challenges and frightens children (see my retrospective review on 'Jumanji' here, and perhaps no film for this target is as creepy or haunting as 'Coraline'. Had I been a child in 2009 (rather than the mature and gentlemanly 17-year-old I actually was), I can almost guarantee that this film would have left me with heebie-jeebies beyond repair. The world that Selick crafts, aided by Japanese artist Tadahiro Uesugi ('Big Hero 6', 'Luca'), is not only instantly recognisable but has a way of crawling under your skin to the point that even the warmth of the ending will ultimately leave audiences with eerie caution. Make no mistake, it's stunning, and it presents such a beautiful use of animation that it only makes me wish studios invested more in stop-motion.
Selick was, of course, no stranger to the form, coming from similarly nightmarish adventures as 'James and the Giant Peach' and 'Nightmare Before Christmas'. It made him the perfect choice to adapt Neil Gaiman's award-winning novella, and he certainly delivers. There are so many images that can't escape my mind and perhaps there is some recency bias, but is there any single motif in cinema as recognisable and haunting as the black-buttoned eyes? World-building is integral to any creative piece, so it's incredible that Selick manages to essentially make two of them that are at once distinguishable and somehow familiar. The life and colour of the alternate world is spellbinding, particularly contrasted to the lifeless presentation of real life. But it's not just the environment - the character designs are likewise so carefully moulded and highlight one of the many advantages animation can bring its creators. Recently there are too many animations that try to be as realistic as possible, and while thanks to 'Spider-Verse' this trend is slowing, it's still so refreshing to see animation being utilised to its full potential.
Is there any single motif in cinema as recognisable and haunting as the black-buttoned eyes? World-building is integral to any creative piece, so it's incredible that Selick manages to essentially make two of them that are at once distinguishable and somehow familiar.
Having said that, 'Coraline' was arguably part of the one of the strongest Academy Award for Best Animation nominations groups in memory. Up against 'Fantastic Mr Fox', 'The Secret of Kells', 'The Princess and the Frog' and eventual winner 'Up', this was an amazing collection of features. All (bar perhaps one) have stood the test of time and can proudly lay claim to being a phenomenal piece of art.
'Coraline' isn't perfect, and I had issues with the role of the parents. Coraline learns lessons and grows as a character, but sadly her parents just seem to get in the way. In fact, in the end when the gate is locked and everything is back to normal, her parents only pay Coraline attention because they finished their work. It has nothing to do with growth, or realisation, but rather time. Having not read the book I don't know if this was dealt with differently, but it seems that Selick is much more interested in Coraline's arc to the deterrence of everyone else. Perhaps it would have been too cute had Mum and Dad equally had an epiphany and grown as people, and I'm all for non-Hollywood endings if they deserve it, but it just had the nagging feeling that they were neglected and a lost opportunity.
This film is remembered for the striking visuals and incredible world-building. It is widely considered a masterpiece in animation and it was a treat to witness it for the first time (maybe). I adore how much it wants to scare the young audience within reason and I genuinely believe that, when harnessed properly, this can be a powerful tool for growth. There is a story of Selick showing the film to his daughter to test if it wasn't too scary and apparently, she lied to say it was fine only to later have serious nightmares. Whoops.
Creepy beyond what is necessary and overall otherworldly in a delightful way, 'Coraline' exceeds all expectations to become one of the all-time greats. A film that almost didn't get made and had several stumbling blocks, it is a lasting testament to trusting a vision and great source material that we as an audience deserve so much more of. I am so thrilled I ticked this one off, and I cannot wait to explore more embarrassing film blindspots.